The last days of any trip are bittersweet. Cyprus was no different. A trip into the mountains. A visit to a winery-grandma staring anxiously into my face with each sip. Does she like it or doesn’t she? A slow stroll through the market. A final swim in the waters, as warm and gentle as a womb. The incredulous way I feel when placing my hand on an ancient Roman column, feeling the rough and warmth of the stone beneath my palm. Smile at the “Department of Antiquities” posting, so Harry Potter-ish. I notice more fully the heat of the sun, the way it reflects off the limestone earth like so many sun-bleached bones. Have I done it all, or at least enough?
Why is it then, when I’m not even over the jet lag yet, I’m already wondering how soon it will be before I can get away again? I love my home and my friends, I’ve got a good job that brings me satisfaction, and a peaceful life. I know so many people with the resources and time who prefer to stay home. I’ve had more than one romantic relationship end over this issue in one form or another. “Come home. Prove you love me more than travel. Be here to support me and my career.” I haven’t been able to do it yet. Rather than try to change this about myself, I hope maybe someday I can meet someone who likes this about me. So what is it?
I feel like travel wakes me up, shakes me out of the stupor a daily routine puts me in. It’s so easy to fall into a mindless, workaday week. Get up, work out, go to work, see a friend, go to bed…the days become weeks and the weeks become months, and life just sort of slips by unnoticed, unremarkable, and unremarked upon. When I get in the car, board a boat, or get on a plane and go somewhere new, I suddenly see everything. At home the cyclist riding down the street is background noise. In Paris, the old man wobbling down the alley on his bicycle with a baguette strapped on the back makes me smile and becomes a snapshot in my mind, a mental postcard. The smallest details like where to go for breakfast are made with thought and intention. There is no mindless routine. Everything is engaging, new, and interesting.
Travel makes me re-assess. It’s an opportunity to see that other cultures do things differently and they work just as well. Maybe better. In America, the number one goal is to make more money. In France that is not the number one goal. Stores close for 3 hours or so in the middle of the day and often for the entire month of August. Yes, the shop keeper could make more money if he stayed open, but to him, it’s more important to have a nice meal, a nap, and some time with the family. Maybe he’s onto something. In Italy, beauty is highly prized. The food is beautiful, the music is beautiful, the architecture, the fashions, the cars; beauty is of the utmost. I look at the grey strip malls of America and notice. Being surrounded by and appreciating beauty adds a dimension to life that I now appreciate too. Cyprus is family and food oriented. Many of the restaurants have areas for children to play because the adults will be sitting, eating, and talking for hours and hours. I will think of that as I next eat over the kitchen sink in a rush or balance a cup of coffee between my legs while driving to the next oh so important engagement. What could be more important than a leisurely meal with people you care about?
It stretches me and makes me grow. International travel is nothing if not constant problem solving. I dislike math and cross word puzzles. But I enjoy the kind of problem solving travel presents. How does this ATM work? What about that dishwasher? What is this person trying to tell me? Why is everyone heading that direction? How the heck do you get the gas cap off this car!?
While I’m no longer in school, if I’m traveling, I’m learning. Once, while traveling in southeast Asia, I found myself driving through the countryside with a Laotian driver and a young couple from Belgium. We stopped at a large cave and the driver told a story about times past when the villagers had to run to the cave and that they would teach school in the cave, cook meals and set up a hospital in the dark and damp. “But why did they need to go into these caves?” I asked, confused. “Because of the bombs” the driver responded. “Oh wow, who was bombing you?” I asked, concerned. The Belgians turned to me slack-jawed in amazement. Our driver looked at the ground. “Excuse me, I’m sorry, Miss. But you were. The United States.” I felt like such a heel, so embarrassed. It’s possible I was not paying attention that day in school, but it’s also possible they don’t teach us in school that during the Vietnam War, we bombed the crap out of the wrong country. On purpose. Apparently they do teach this in Belgium and they are well aware in Laos. Anyway, now I know all about it and will never forget it. Not after going through small rural villages and seeing fences and structures built out of old American bombs (there are so many, may as well be resourceful about what to do with them), signage alerting the unwary traveler not to go off the paved road due to unexploded ordnance, still to this day. Talk about an education.
Travel makes fairy tales true. And turns the true into fairy tales. Sonia said on her flight home she saw a movie in which there was a scene with the Eiffel Tower. She said she lit up like a Christmas tree because she had just been there. I’ve had that feeling too, like I was walking around in a post card in Cusco, Peru. I cried in Cambodia, at S-21, the prison where innocents were kept until being trucked out to the Killing Fields. I laughed out loud in Venice because I just couldn’t believe the canals and gondoliers in their black and white striped shirts, were real, that I wasn’t in a movie. A traveler always comes home with tales to tell.
It fills in the blanks. When I look at a world map, it’s no longer different colored shapes on a flat piece of paper. Now when I look at a map and see “Cyprus”, I will see Alyssa and Brad (my gracious hosts) and their dog Rusty. I’ll see the pink pelican of Pafos, the herd of goats crossing the road. I’ll feel the sweat trickle down my neck, the dust on my feet and the sun beating down on my back. I’ll remember the feeling of awe, standing in and amongst the ancient ruins. I’ll taste the salty halloumi, the lamb slow cooked in red wine, the eggplant soaked in golden olive oil. It makes that little blob on the map in the Mediterranean feel like a long-lost friend.
I guess maybe that’s it. Travel makes me feel like I belong in the world. I know that place. I know people there. It makes me happy to have a place in the world. Not just one place, or five places, it feels good to be able to move through the world and have it all feel like home. I’ve been here before. I know how to do this.